Wisconsin has high expectations after winning a share of the Big Ten title and a berth in the Rose Bowl last year.
Whether the Badgers can meet those goals may partly depend on their quarterback, who was playing in another conference in 2010.
Russell Wilson will make his debut for the 11th-ranked Badgers when they host UNLV on Thursday night.
Most offshore sports books monitored by the SportsOptions odds product opened the Badgers as hefty 35-point home favorites, with the total set at 56.
Wisconsin capped an 11-2 season with a 21-19 loss to TCU in the Rose Bowl. Despite losing six starters on offense, including quarterback Scott Tolzien, and five on defense, the Badgers aren’t expecting a letdown.
One factor in their chances of reaching the first Big Ten title game will be how well Wilson fits in. The fifth-year senior left North Carolina State after coach Tom O’Brien wanted the three-year starter to be more committed to the program and participate in spring drills rather than play minor league baseball for the Colorado Rockies.
Wilson passed for 3,563 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2010 while leading the Wolfpack to a 23-7 victory over West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl. He signed with Wisconsin at the end of June, and despite only having a few months to learn the new system, his teammates have been impressed.
“He has a very high football IQ,” receiver Nick Toon said. “He came in and picked up the offense pretty fast and meshed with the team. In a sense, it has felt like he has been here as long as anyone else.”
The Badgers averaged a school-record 41.5 points last season, scoring 70 or more three times, but Wilson won’t be tasked with doing it all. They also return two running backs who rushed for over 900 yards in James White (1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns) and Montee Ball (996 yards, 18 TDs).
One thing Wilson might not be worried about is the space in front of him. Although Wisconsin lost two starting linemen in Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt, there are no shortage of big bodies in Madison.
Stepping in to replace the two NFL draft picks will be 326-pound Travis Frederick and 322-pound Ricky Wagner.
“There’s not really a good way to replace those guys. All that Ricky and I are trying to do is go in and make an identity for ourselves,” Frederick said.
Wisconsin opens the season against a familiar non-conference foe in UNLV. This will be the sixth time in 10 years and the second straight season the programs are meeting. Ball ran for two touchdowns in a 41-21 victory last year.
UNLV is coming off a 2-11 season, Bobby Hauck’s first as coach. The Rebels averaged 18.4 points, 11th-fewest in the nation, and amassed the third-fewest yards per game at 274.2.
They weren’t much better defensively, giving up the fifth-most points in the FBS with 39.7 per game and fifth-most rushing yards at 222.7.
Caleb Herring, who appeared in eight games last season, will be trying to improve the offense as he steps in at quarterback. He completed 28 of 56 passes for 365 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions in 2010.
The Rebels do have some experienced players, including leading receiver Phillip Payne (689 yards and five touchdowns) and leading rusher Tim Cornett (546 yards, 6 TDs).
Still, Hauck cautions this is going to be a growing season.
“We’re a very young group,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot of unknowns on both sides of the ball, but one of the things that excites me is exactly that. I think we’ll get better almost every week this season. … That has to be the goal, to get better.”
The Rebels certainly want to improve on the road, as they’ve been outscored 408-96 in dropping nine straight away from home. UNLV has lost 37 of 41 on the road since the start of the 2004 season.
These teams last met in Madison in 2004, an 18-3 win for the Badgers.
UNLV has three victories in its last 26 games against ranked opponents, winning 23-5 at then-No. 14 Wisconsin in 2003.